Lorenzo Ghiberti, The Gates of Paradise: Cornice with Self-portrait of Ghiberti, 1425–52, Florence/Photo: Antonio Quattrone, courtesy Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

For more than two centuries, a period that lasted longer than the ancient Pax Romana, the city of Florence was the center of the political, financial, and—more importantly—artistic life of the Christian West. Unlike its imperial predecessor, this more modern hegemony was due to neither the efficiency of an authoritarian administration nor a military power. The pre-eminence of Florence was based on the almost miraculous...

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